Video: Paranormal groups seek haunted history at area sites

Margaret Smith

On a sweltering Saturday afternoon, only a slight breeze brought relief from the heat.

But instead of sitting home in air-conditioned comfort, a small group from Boston Paranormal Investigators roamed among historical sites in Lexington.

They came armed with specialized equipment such as electromagnetic field meters – small, box-like instruments that pick up electromagnetic activity, as well as notebooks and hand-held video cameras.

They watched, listened, and sometimes, simply waited.

At Buckman Tavern, Scott Trainito of Everett held an electromagnetic field detector close to the ground. When it uttered quick, staccato chirps, he raised an eyebrow, but then declared, “It’s just wires.”

Which doesn’t mean that no one was watching. Local lore has it that the ghost of a woman haunts an upper room.

When the silent tavern gave up no secrets, most of the group ventured across the road to the Battle Green, the burial place of several Revolutionary War soldiers.

As several members walked around the fence that surrounds the memorial obelisk, some, including Boston Paranormal Investigators founder Tom Elliott of Waltham, used an electromagnetic field detector, with little response.

When Trainito rejoined them, he said, when everyone else left the tavern, the detector began to go off once again, this time with greater fervor.

This led to some teasing – perhaps the ghost had taken an interest to the young man outside her home.

Trainito produced a dowsing rod, which can be used to trace sources of water underground, but which TTrainito said can also be useful in paranormal research. Holding the two rods lightly, he showed others how they crossed and sometimes dipped toward the ground.

(Trainito is a co-founder of another group, Para-Boston Investigators, which focuses not so much on public sites but on private ones, such as dwellings. Para-Boston Investigators and Boston Paranormal Investigators have several common members. Both groups are comprised of volunteers who pursue the possibility of paranormal activity as a hobby.)

Next stop was the Old Burying Ground, itself a testament to the hardships of colonial times. Among the stark slate stones were those marking the graves of children carried off at a young age.

Some group members studied the stones, adorned with bleak, winged skulls typical of the period.

Jon Smith, of Marlborough, took some photos, saying he would examine them “for anything that looks out of place.”

Madeline Pettengill told a visitor that one family plot in particular compelled her, saying she felt a kind of pressure when she approached it.

Later, at a dinner break at a local restaurant, she shared photos she had taken, including those with strange, orange flecks of light that appeared not to come from any plausible source.

The sun receded, and it was time to move on to the forested stretch of Minuteman National Historical Park. As fireflies winked in the darkness, investigators walked the dusty trail, musing about what they might find.

And then, a disorienting scene – a bond fire, with several people in 18th century garb sitting around it, seeming at first oblivious – not unlike the shades in “A Christmas Carol.”

They were not emissaries from the early American past, but historical interpreters from the 21st century present.

Things got even more surreal when a park ranger approached and said mildly that without a permit, no one but park staff and volunteers was allowed on the premises after dark.

Disappointed, the group left. Some went home; others stayed on to try their luck at other sites.

Later, Elliott explained that normally the group investigates public sites that do not require permits and cited the cost of obtaining a permit to be on the park premises after hours. He said the group always cooperates with law enforcement authorities and agencies responsible for the management of sites.

With every outing comes a chance for group members to catch up with friends and have a few laughs, even if there were no traces of phantoms and shades to show for all their efforts.

‘You could always feel something’

Tabitha Bagnell, of Woburn, looks younger than her 35 years and works as an office manager for a taxicab company. But her real passion from childhood has been seeking signs that ghosts might dwell among us, or at least finding explanations for peculiar noises, lights and energy that seem to plague some homes and buildings.

“ I was brought up in a house in Woburn that had a lot of activity. You could always feel something very negative,” she recalled. “You felt you were being watched. Doors would slam… nobody would ever stay in the house alone.”

Bagnell said she is learning the particulars of equipment such as electromagnetic field detectors, and instruments that record voice and which she said sometimes pick up voice sounds of people not in the room – perhaps cell phone exchanges, but perhaps not.

She related a particularly creepy anecdote about her aunt’s home in Vermont. “Some people had played with a Ouija board,” a practice she said she doesn’t recommend. Ever since then, she said, the house seemed to come alive with peculiarities, including dripping water from no apparent source and even an apparition reported by a cousin.

Research revealed that in the 1930s, a little girl apparently got hold of a gun to play with and shot herself fatally. Her grave is on the premises, Bagnell said.

Later, in the 1950s, a father allegedly shot and killed his son, pinning the blame successfully on another son, Bagnell said.

She decided to go and take some pictures, which showed nothing unusual. Taking a chance, she said she called out, “Are you afraid?” and heard an adult voice say, “No.”

Spirits and skeptics

As tantalizing as this experience was, Bagnell said investigators must have both an open mind and a keen sense of skepticism.

In recent times, some ghost fanciers have claimed that so-called orbs appearing on photos are evidence of some kind of supernatural energy.

But it strikes many that the orb phenomenon seemed to gain momentum with the advent of digital cameras, and that dust and condensation or even insects in the night air can show up as circular discolorations on a camera lens.

“If you go out on a humid night with a camera, it’s going to be orb city,” Bagnell said.

A lifelong pursuit

Boston Paranormal Investigators’ founder Elliott, 69, said, “I started reading about it when I was a teenager, and grabbed everything that I could. It also helped that I was a horror movie fan.”

Boston Paranormal Investigators meets the fourth Monday of each month at Elliott’s Waltham home.

For years, Elliott worked in television production. His credits include “Personal Perspectives,” a cable show that focused on people who claimed to have paranormal experiences including hauntings and alien abductions, and “From Beyond,” which was hosted by Joey Travolta.

He also contributed articles to “Fate,” a long-standing publication dedicated to mysterious experiences.

Boston Paranormal Investigators has about 80 members, with a core group of 12 to 15 who participate in many of the “field trips” arranged to investigate sites of interest.

Members come from area communities such as Woburn, Revere, Lexington, Waltham, and Billerica, Westford, but also as far away as Pepperell and Kingston, N.H.

Members host trainings for those who want to learn how to use various types of equipment, but the trainers themselves are largely self-trained.

Technology has played a role, enabling investigators to further isolate which noises or sights are simply aberrations of electrical energy, and which seem to defy explanation.

“I’m a skeptic. It takes a lot to convince me,” said Elliott, but said it’s nonetheless very jarring to play back a voice recorder and hear a cry for help that wouldn’t normally typify a conversation.

Investigators can look at a photo, hear a recording or examine some other kind of evidence and disagree on what it means.

“You are probably never going to get concrete proof,” Elliott said. “The best we can say is, we think this place is haunted.”

Elliott said the compulsion to look for ghosts persists for a simple reason. “I think the main drive is, to prove your own immortality. Are we going to survive after death, or is that it?”

To learn more about Boston Paranormal Investigators, visit

To learn more about Para-Boston Investigators, visit